Curt Steinhorst

Curt Steinhorst is the bestselling author of Can I Have Your Attention? Inspiring Better Work Habits, Focusing Your Team, and Getting Stuff Done in the Constantly Connected Workplace. He is on a...

A Research-Based Approach to Multitasking

person multitasking with technology

Working for your boss can be hard enough, but workers in stakeholder-driven jobs have the added pressure of working for, essentially, multiple bosses. Professionals in market research, human resources, and learning and development (L&D) – along with other integrated departments – spend their days fielding requests from and providing deliverables to managers and planners throughout an enterprise.

Ask them how many departments exist in their company; that’s how many bosses they have. Needless to say, these lion-hearted individuals must be excellent multitaskers. Right?

Well, no. At least not in the way we usually use the term. When we say someone is good at multitasking, we usually mean they type with one hand and scroll through their Facebook timeline with the other, all while talking into a headset on a conference call. They look impressively busy – even efficient. After all, they’re halfway through 17 different tasks.

If only they could finish just one of them well.

Study after study has confirmed this “one-man band” approach actually decreases productivity. When neuroscientists asked200 participants to navigate highway traffic while responding to simple cellphone questions, 3 percent passed the test. That’s a failure rate of 97 percent to do tasks that are, by themselves, very easy.

Our brains can devote active focus to only one sphere of attention at a time. When we try to focus actively on two spheres simultaneously, the results are pretty pathetic. Even if we only focus on one sphere at a time, switching between spheres comes at a cost. A group of doctors conducted four experiments in which young people shifted between activities like solving math problems and categorizing geometric objects. Every participant in the study lost time when switching tasks. The more complex the task, the more time he or she lost.

Our brains can devote active focus to only one sphere of attention at a time.

In practical terms, this means professionals who attempt wholesale multitasking are wasting time and money. One efficiency expert estimates that, because of the lost time when switching tasks, workday interruptions waste 28 billion hours a year, costing the U.S. economy nearly $1 trillion.

This is not good enough for our intrepid L&D workers. Fortunately, behavioral science provides support for two types of multitasking that do increase human efficiency:

  1. Autopilot is multitasking that increases productivity. A professional drummer, while focusing on drumming, can also do some simple tasks outside his or her sphere of attention. We do this kind of multitasking all the time, like talking on the phone while doing dishes. In fact, combining one easy task (like listening to classical music) and one hard task (like financial modeling) can actually increase your over-productivity.
  2. Inhibitory spillover is multitasking that increases willpower. Mirjam Tuk found that people fighting the urge to go to the bathroom made smarter impulse control choices (i.e., focusing on a spreadsheet rather than flipping to WhatsApp) than those who weren’t. She hypothesized that bladder control fires up the brain’s inhibitory network, which is tied to cognitive control (the part of your brain you use when you are actively deciding what to focus on). This process is called inhibitory spillover: When you resist one thing, it actually increases resistance across the board.

Behavioral science provides support for two types of multitasking that do increase human efficiency.

For L&D professionals working for stakeholders across the enterprise spectrum, we can start by emphasizing the value we lose when switching tasks and devise strategies to minimize switches.

An important but difficult example is normalizing a new model of message responsiveness. Switching to answer an email every eight minutes slows us down. Even if we are only focused on one sphere at a time, the switch itself is the cognitive problem. Instead, review emails in batches at pre-determined times throughout the day, allowing in-between times to be productive, work-focused oases. Communicate this new intention to your team, and encourage them to use their time and focus in a similar manner.

As for the good types of multitasking, start by making a list. What tasks have you mastered so well that you can add other, simpler tasks to them? At what part of the project workflow would autopilot be most productive? Being intentional about multitasking will ensure you don’t overestimate yourself and wind up actually decreasing your productivity.

Being intentional about multitasking will ensure you don’t overestimate yourself.

For inhibitory spillover, when are you most in need of willpower to focus on work? In those situations, find a secondary locus for your mental resistance, like your favorite candy or a visit to your favorite cat channel on YouTube, to increase your resistance to all distractions.

Approach multitasking from a cognitive standpoint that is honest about human capability. You’ll see your team’s productivity increase as they shed poor focus habits, and, with any luck, each of those hundred stakeholders will feel like they’re the only one.

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